Visiting famous wine regions can lead to the exciting discovery of lesser-known vineyards. For publication week starting 29 February 2016
Passion for wine is truly ignited when one finds oneself eating lunch at an osteria on the town square in Barolo, tasting aged vintage port on a balcony overlooking the mighty Douro River, or feeling the breeze on one’s face in the Grand Cru vineyards of Chablis. Chablis is a must-go for lovers of this uniquely styled wine
Visiting such places also offers a discovery point for “new” vineyards. About five miles east from the picture-perfect town of Chablis lies Tonnerre. It is already an attractive little place to visit, with its ancient wellspring and the Canal de Bourgogne which cuts right through it, linking the Saone to the Seine, and thus also the Atlanic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.
But its 500 or so hectares of vineyards were almost totally wiped out by the phylloxera crisis in the late 1800s. It was not until the 1970s that any re-planting began, and most of the plantings are as recent as the 1990s. The best slopes – well-exposed South and South-east facing in the communes of Tonnerre, Epineuil, Molosmes, Junay, Dannemoine and Vézinnes – are also sheltered, ameliorating the damaging effects of frost which is a real threat in this quite northerly part of France.
For Florent Masson, owner of Domaine de Val Grevin, pylloxera was “the end” for a region already struggling, and he says the rediscovery of this region is truly exciting. It was granted AOC status in 2006 for wines made from Chardonnay, under the name Bourgogne Tonnerre. About 30 producers are now making wine there.
In 2010 Masson, a member of the Independent Vignerons Association, took out a 30-year lease in Tonnerre to extend his own vineyards, attracted by the chance to work with existing old vines rather than planting from scratch. His entry-level Domaine de Val Grevin Les Vauceuses Vieilles Vignes 2014 (it is a 1.5 hectare vineyard) is richly fruity and round with peachy, passion fruit aromas and elegant floral (acacia) notes, and is clearly created for ageing. Even the entry level Domaine de Val Grevin Champsboudons Vieilles Vignes 2014 has a similar fruit profile and a richness that balances out the acidity.
Masson, whose father Regis began replanting in Tonnerre in 1990, believes that vineyards here are capable of making exceptional white wine. Vintages can vary quite dramatically – his production should be about 25,00 bottles a year but some years he has made as few as 10,000. But the quality is always there, he says, even if quantity can nose-dive.
His organic estate Domaine du Val Grevin is situated in the tiny village of Epineuil, very close to Tonnerre. It is one of those typical villages that might have just one corner store and one bar that serves Pastis alongside espresso coffee and croissant in the morning. At the top of the village is the impressive Domaine de l’Abbaye which dates back to the 13th century.
As well as being part of the Bourgogne Tonnerre appellation, the Bourgogne Epineuil appellation was created in 1993 for wines made with Pinot Noir. As well as red wines, this village is also traditionally famous for rose wine. Masson explains that the juice is only left on skins for between two and 24 hours, and his Domaine de Val Grevin Dannots Vieilles Vignes Rose 2014 is a fascinating example of how a red grape can behave almost like a white grape. Close your eyes and you’d struggle to guess you were drinking a pink rather than white wine. Masson likes making this wine, appreciating the link with the village’s long but turbulent vinous past. He also makes a Cremant de Bourgogne, Domaine de Val Grevin Noirs et Blancs, which similarly recalls the time when Epineuil was considered part of the Champagne region.
Domaine du Val Grevin reds made from Pinot Noir prove the depth and complexity that this grape can achieve here, but with a haunting ephemeral quality, too. The Domaine de Val Grevin Dannots Vieilles Vignes 2014 is young and a bit closed but already perfumed with a bouquet of spices, flowers and fruits. It has a delicate, chalky texture and a great length which finishes with dark cherry and pomegranate. The Domaine de Val Grevin Dannots Vielles Vinges 2013 is more open but deeper and firmer, too. This is serious Pinot Noir land.
Finally, it almost goes without saying that little-known Burgundy communes such as Epineuil and Tonnerre explored here offer fantastic value for money.